What Do Horses Eat? An Equine Nutrition Guide


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A horse’s digestive system is complex and fragile, and to keep it running smoothly, a horse needs to eat the right food. If they don’t eat correctly, they’re likely to get sick, display changes in behavior and can colic. So, what do horses need to eat?

Horses are herbivores who eat grasses, legumes, grains, vegetables, and fruit. They have a small stomach that processes food quickly. So, to meet their dietary needs, they graze most of the day, consuming small amounts of grass and hay.

When horses don’t get enough of what they need, it negatively impacts their health and behavior. This article is part of a series of articles I wrote about equine nutrition; I encourage you to use the links for detailed information on specific topics.

What horses eat

Grass

Horses are herbivores and need to graze on grass or eat other plants to digest their food correctly. The horse’s digestive system is designed to break down forage to extract nutrients for energy.

Vets and equine dieticians recommend that horses eat roughly two percent of what they weigh every day in forage to maintain a healthy digestive system.

There are two primary types of grass cool-season and warm-season. Warm-season grasses include bermudagrass, crabgrass, and Bahia grass. Popular cool-season grasses are Kentucky bluegrass, Timothy, and orchardgrass.

During the early spring, young grass is rich in high soluble carbohydrates. Large amounts of these can disturb the balance of bacteria in the gut and cause a horse to founder. Therefore, it would be best to keep your horses off pastures with young grass in April or May because of the health risks.

Additional resources

Picture of square bales of hay.

Hay

Hay provides roughage when natural pasture is unavailable. Everyone knows that hay is for horses, but all hay isn’t the same. The species of grass and the method used to store it impacts its nutritional value and influences a horse’s eating preference.

Some of the best grass and legumes for making hay are Timothy, Kentucky bluegrass, and Alfalfa. Although hay isn’t a horse’s only fuel, it is the most important of the harvested roughage that horses eat throughout the world, especially where growing grass is not always available.

The quality of hay is directly influenced by how it is harvested. Grasses should be cut when the head is just beginning to grow, and when cured, the heads of Timothy should be about 1 1/2 inches long; alfalfa should be cut at the bud to early bloom stage.

Most horses can do well on a hay-only diet though broodmares or growing and heavily worked animals may need their diet supplemented with grain to provide sufficient proteins and vitamins.

Additional Resources

Picture of horses eating watermelons

Fruits and vegetables

Most horses aren’t picky eaters when it comes to fruits and vegetables. They eat apples, carrots, watermelons, and many other fruits and vegetables. However, there’s one crucial thing you need to know before feeding your horse fruit and vegetables, and it’s that each has different risks associated with it, and some can make an animal sick.

But many fruits and vegetables provide benefits, such as being rich sources of nutrients. So please don’t feed your horse anything you aren’t sure is safe for them to eat.

Additional resources

Picture of a horse eating grain from a bucket.

Concentrated feeds and Grains

Concentrated foods are a mixture of grain or pellet rations with supplements. This category includes whole grains and formulated sweet feed, including high-grade byproducts such as hominy feed, wheat bran, cottonseed meal, linseed meal, or corn gluten feeds.

If your horse needs extra energy, it may need to eat concentrates or grains to provide that additional burst of power or replace nutrients lost during strenuous workouts. However, too much of it can cause an imbalance and lead to severe health problems such as colic.

Additional resources

Picture of a horse licking a salt block.

Salt

Horses require salt for the proper function of their body, as it helps with muscle and nerve activity. Unfortunately, many horses don’t get enough of it and end up in distress because their muscles and nerves stop working right.

Some horses that lack adequate salt in their diet turn to eating dirt, which can cause them to get sick. A typical horse needs about 10 grams of sodium a day, but this amount can change depending on how much they sweat. You can supplement your horse’s salt intake by providing a salt block.

Additional resources

Picture of a horse drinking water.

Water

Water isn’t food, but it is one of the most essential things horses need to stay healthy, so I decided to include it in this article. Horses drink water to stay hydrated and healthy. Therefore, they must have access to fresh, clean water every day.

Without proper care and water intake, a horse will get dehydrated, leading to many health problems for the animal, such as digestive issues, diarrhea, colic, and even death.

We know how difficult it can be to stay hydrated when the weather is hot or when we’re exercising, imagine how much more difficult this task must be for horses who are much larger and covered with a full coat of hair.

Additional resources

Minimum nutritional requirements for horses.

Type of HorseCrude Protein
(% of daily ration
Energy
(calories)
Vitamin “A”Calcium
(international units)
Phosphorus
Mature at rest
900lbs.
1100lbs.

10 %
13,860-16,39010,000-12,50016,000-20,00012,000-15,000
Mature at light work10%18,360-21,89010,000-12,50016,000-20,00012,000-15,000
Mature at moderate work10%23,800-28,69010,000-12,50017,200-21,20013,000-16,000
Mare in last 90 days of pregnancy11.5%14,880-17,35020,000-25,00019,500-24,00015,000-18,000
Lactating Mares13.3%-24,390-27,62020,000-25,00042,000-47,00035,600-38,600
Foals (3 mos.)19%12,0704,40030,50019,100
weanlings (6 mos.)14.3%15,4009,00046,00028,700
Yearlings12.3%16,81011,00026,00017,400
18 month11.3%17,16016,00023,00016,000

The chart numbers represent a daily feeding ration for a healthy mature horse at light work (1 to 3 hours daily) that weighs approximately 1,000 pounds.

This feeding would meet the recommended daily rations to maintain a healthy horse. Equestrians generally use a standard-sized scoop for feed; remember that all grains don’t weigh the same.

For this reason, check the weight of the grain, and feed the correct amount. Remember to introduce a new feeding plan slowly and consult your veterinarian if you have any questions concerning your horses’ health.

Some common foods you should not feed a horse.

There are many things we eat that shouldn’t be fed to horses, it would be impossible to cover all foods that are harmful to horses but here are the more common food items most people have around there house that shouldn’t be fed to horses:

  • Coffee, tea, or any drink that contains sugar or caffeine.
  • Candy, especially chocolate. The chemical theobromine in chocolate can make a horse sick and, in some instances, be fatal.
  • Tomatoes: It’s mainly the tomato plant that causes the most severe trouble. Their leaves and stalks contain an alkaloid that slows gut function and can cause colic.
  • Onions, garlic, leeks, shallots can cause a horse to become anemic if ingested. If a horse eats enough of one of these, the condition could be life-threatening.
  • Potatoes have a natural toxin called glycoalkaloids. Therefore, when horses eat large amounts of potatoes, they will get sick and may never fully recover.

Resources

Miles Henry

I love animals! Especially horses, I've been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn't make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines. Miles Henry

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